Saturday, November 28, 2009

The Cruelty Question

If we are to heal our ailing national integrity, we absolutely cannot tolerate the mistake perpetrated by David Brooks in his Op-ed piece, “The Values Question.” (Nov. 24, New York Times)

Brooks claims that affordable healthcare requires a trade-off between commerce and wellbeing. For him, it’s a cost-benefit analysis, and the right answer is necessarily relative: it simply depends on what standard we choose to embrace.

To make things worse, he pits decency against vitality and youth against age, a weird and disturbing linkage of concepts:

“Reform [affordable healthcare] would make us a more decent society, but also a less vibrant one. It would ease the anxiety of millions at the cost of future growth ... America would be a less youthful, ragged and unforgiving nation, and a more middle-aged, civilized and sedate one.”

For a brilliant man, Brooks is chasing so many chimeras that I’m baffled at where to begin.

First of all, the view that the right thing to do is relative to what values we choose is called moral relativism; and it is a shameful, indefensible standard of conduct.

When I teach Intro Ethics, every other eighteen-year-old in the class believes that there is no ultimate judge beyond convention, and that therefore murder isn’t really wrong. Nor is slavery, rape, or any other so-called crime. But by the end of the class, most of them realize they don’t actually espouse this view.

Brooks, however, seems stuck at moral level a few years past pubescence. His reduction of human misery to a “values question” would make a machete-wielding Hutu proud.

It’s not that healthcare for the needy would make us “more decent,” as Brooks asserts. It would make us decent as opposed to degenerate. No matter how you spin it, denying millions of people relief from easily curable pain is wicked. We aren’t talking dismissible twinges and aches of a minor variety; we’re talking chronic uninvited pain that cripples or even kills. Let 40 million hard-working citizens languish in fear, suffer secretly, and lose their life savings by going to the hospital to get basic relief?

“Yeah, that’s an option, sure. It’s better for our pocketbooks, not to mention our youths.” That’s what Brooks implies when he sets up his argument, pitting the old and decrepit versus the young and fantastic. But young people get sick, and seniors contribute to the vitality of the community in many ways.

Brooks has committed another error of false bifurcation. In other words, his picture of the situation is fundamentally wrong, and so any argument he formulates from that picture is specious.

Heck, what about the rest of us, who are neither decrepit nor brimming with winsome vitality? Where do us betweeners fit in Brooks’ beautiful-or-ugly world?

The common sense truth about a crowded Earth is that we’re all in this together; and if we let ourselves be deluded into “us versus them,” we’re all going down, vituperating and calumniating.

Nor is it a trade-off between freedom on one side and health on the other. What Brooks ignores is the simple truth: health goes hand in hand with freedom. Duh!

Peace of mind, confidence, ability to focus on artistic, spiritual or entrepreneurial goals. What use is freedom if you are abandoned and sick, or always having to worry about it. When most of us think freedom, we think room for the mind and heart to grow. We don’t envision a giveaway for the Beasts, corporations without oversight, scheming to grub more profit.

This segues into another Brooks mistake: assuming that a healthy society will be inefficient. Where does he get this gunk? Has he been reading the writs of Antebellum Mississippi judges? Slave owners used the same argument: if you eliminate slavery, you tank the economy.

I guess Brooks would say slavery is just a values question.

As for me, I’m sick (!) of profit-brained pundits blabbing that a good society is at odds with Gross Domestic Product. The GDP is a number. People are more important. To embrace the GDP as the best indicator of a nation’s mettle is scoundrelly. It reveals an obsession with the moment, and a myopic grasp of the future.

An ethical society leads to better people, who are more likely to work with virtue and a sense of kindness and reciprocity. We used to have such positive traits in the USA, and you can still find them in small towns; but for the most part, we’ve been turned into neurotic squabblers by a mentality of money first.

Money before health. Money before kindness. Money before a basic standard of respect and responsibility.

That Brooks can get away with posturing the debate in terms of the suffering of millions versus growth for corporations shows how pathetic our civilization is at this time, in the Age of Money First.

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